Two Days in Fallujah

The picture above is my ride.  They kick us out when they refuel. Good precaution.
It was supposed to be a short trip to Camp Fallujah.  My penultimate big boss, John Negroponte, was coming by to learn a little more about progress in Anbar and PRTs, so everybody figured it was a good idea for me to come down. 

The meeting was very good.  I learned a lot listening to my colleagues and the generals, all of whom have more experience in Iraq than I do, explain how the situation had changed and what we were likely to see in the future.  I made a modest contribution about our own ePRT plans.  That was it. 

Above is Camp Fallujah

I planned to be back in Al Asad before chow.  Unfortunately, as often happens, my flight time was changed leaving me in Fallujah for the whole day.  This is not a bad thing.  I have learned to bring books; my I-Pod and I can usually link on to the military email and keep up with some of my work. 

Beyond that, I have the nicest room I have ever had in Iraq.  I sometimes get treated better since my late promotion.  I feel kind of bad about that, but not bad enough to turn down the special offers.  There is a real bed, real chairs, a real desk and a little refrigerator with Coke.  This evidently was some kind of conference center, so it features a nice conference room and luxurious guest quarters.   You still have to share a bathroom, but it is indoors and not far from the rooms.  The thing I find interesting about the bathroom is that there are ten showers but only two toilets.  While I understand the necessity for cleanliness, most people take only one shower a day, while they tend to use other facilities more often.  That is why I suspect the showers were dual purpose.

Nice as this place is, the delays do make planning difficult.  Still as I was reading my book in preparation to stroll down to the chow hall, I could not feel very aggrieved.   

Fallujah, as you may recall, was the scene of fierce fighting not very long ago.  Just before I came to Iraq, I saw a History Channel program about it.  It made me just a little uneasy about my decision to come to Iraq.   There were actually two battles.  We won both, and  learned the lesson after the second that we needed to do more than win battles. 
The city is actually more of an area than a true city and more of a Baghdad exurb than a part of Anbar.  The American analogy might be Loudon County.  During the Saddam time it was home to lots of Baathists and others who benefited from the regime.  When Saddam fell, lots of people here lost their jobs and pensions.  They were not all bad guys.  There were various shades of grey and many of them had useful skills.  Those were decisions made above my pay grade and before my time, but in hindsight it is likely that we went a little overboard in putting them out of work.  How would it be for us if all the Federal employees in living Loudon County were laid off and/or lost their pensions?  How might they react?

Above is the CF waiting room.  You can sleep on the floor and lots of people do. I had the whole place to myself for around a half hour.

Of course, if we had it all to do over again we would make different mistakes.  It is easy to be smart after you know the outcome.  That is why you meet so many people who theoretically made big money with their past investments but seem to have no money in the real world.

The Secret Oasis

I have lived here for two months and never suspected it existed.  Al Asad has an Oasis. It is on the opposite end of the base from Ripper in a little depression and not easily spotted.  According to local legend, the patriarch Abraham camped here on his way from Mesopotamia to the Holy Land.  It is not the most direct route, but maybe he was lost.

There is reed fringed pond with crystal clear water coming out of an underground spring.  The water is as transparent as liquid air and it is hard to tell where one world stops and the other starts.  As you can see in the photo, it is full of little fish.  They almost look like they are floating air.  There are about 30 acres of date palms surrounding the spring.   Our agriculture guy Dennis says some of the trees are around sixty years old.  The younger ones are probably around fifteen years old.  The whole grove is in need of renovation.  Date palms can regenerate naturally, but they are not very good at it.  Under natural conditions, there would not be so many date palms here.  Once established, the palm roots can reach the moist earth several feet down, but they would not establish themselves on the dry surface.

I understand that when they built the Al Asad base during the Saddam time, they kicked out the families who were living here about.  Incongruously a few managed to hold on, ignored, living in the oasis.  When the Al Asad base expanded in 1995, they got kicked out and their homes were demolished.  It must have been sad to leave such an idyllic spot.  I can imagine how it must have been when it was well tended.  There would have been gardens of vegetables and citrus.  There also were certainly sheep and goats, probably a donkey.   But the families had to move off.  We can see the ruins of their houses. That piece of history explains why the youngest trees are around fifteen years old.  The oasis was neglected and abused since the time they left.   I am afraid that we Americans have not been any better stewards than the Iraqi had been.   It could be cleaned up and restored with a reasonable investment in time and money.   Maybe I can help that happen.

As I walked around the oasis, I let my mind wander and imagine how it was when Abraham stopped by.  The oasis is quieter than most of the base, since it is far from the main roads or the landing areas and it is somewhat protected by earth banks.  I was shocked out of my reverie by MiGs.  Yes, MiGs or maybe Mirage.  I don’t know.  We saw the wreckage of two.  One had evidently crashed.  The nose was crushed.  The other seems to have just been abandoned.  It was stripped, but it looked like it had been intact before that. There are lots of MiGs around here; I have seen dozens just haphazardly littering the desert.  Saddam paid billions for these things, enriching Soviet & French arms merchants, but they never did him any good.  They were no match for American forces.  Everybody knew that, the pilots most acutely.  That is why there are so many expensive air assets scattered around the desert.  I guess it is fun to fly a warplane when there is no war, especially if that does not imply that you have to fly if anybody might be shooting at you. 

Above is our Ag guy Dennis in front of the little pond.I will certainly go back to this oasis.  Unfortunately, it is a little outside running range from Ripper so it won’t be every day.  But now I know where to go where when I want a little natural peace.

Goat Grab

Iraqi feasts are good, but predictable.   You get goat (or sheep) meat on top of rice, topped with a kind of rice-a-roni, with peanuts, raw vegetables and raisins mixed in. All of this is piled high on some very good tortilla style bread.  I like the bread.

Americans try to use the bread to grab the food, making a kind of rice and goat burrito.  Iraqis don’t have much use for that strategy.  They grab a handful, squash it all into a ball, letting juice & pieces fall back on the big plate, and pop it into their mouths. The guy next to you will often rip off a piece of goat  with his hands and put it in front of you.  You are supposed to eat it.  If he likes you, you will get a big fatty piece.  You have to eat that too, it is the honor and all that. Sometimes I suspect it is a long standing practical joke they are playing on us – see what the American will eat.

Some feasts feature roasted chicken and a kind of carp that comes out of the Euphrates.  The chicken is very good.  I am content if I can get a piece of that.  I am also accustomed to eating chicken with my fingers, so it is not so odd.   The fish tastes okay, but it is very boney.   You need to be careful eating it.   I prefer both chicken and fish to the goat. 
What I really cannot get used to is the communal nature of the eating.  All the food is in the middle and you all eat from the same place – with your hands.  Rice just does not lend itself to hand eating, so sometimes they dump some soup on top.  It helps the rice stick together but, IMO, that makes it a worse mess.  At some of the classier meals, a kid comes around with water and soap before the meal.  I am happy wash my hands before the meal and even happier to see my neighbors and future meal mates washing theirs.

There are different shifts of eaters.  The higher ranking people belly up first.  When they wander off, some others come.  It looks like there are at least three waves and I suppose whoever cleans up finishes up the scraps.

After the meal, people sit down around the room and they bring tea.  The tea is very sugary.   I am told it is good manners to drink three little cups of tea.   If you drink less you are not accepting the proper hospitality; if you drink more you are abusing it.
Everybody stands or crouches while eating; you do not sit.  The meal has a kind of ad hoc feeling.  It is sort of like a lot of guys hanging around a public place, say a train station, and then somebody brings out a big bowl of food, forgetting the plates or utensils, and puts it on the counter or on the floor.   I guess you can see how this sort of thing would grow up in a nomadic culture.

Spoons, forks and bowls are good things. 

Surging in Iraq

I got my TV connected a few days ago and for the first time in almost two months started watching the news again.  There was a lot of debate about whether or not the surge was working.  While my experience in Iraq is deeper than it is broad, I have observed a few things since I got here that apply to the wider Iraq debate.  I will not reveal anything sensitive and what I am writing here is my personal opinion.  Those of you who know me can discount/compensate for my biases.  All others are on their own.

From my point of view, the surge in Iraq has worked.  My team and I can go places and do things were impossible just months ago.  The Marines who were here before tell me about the unbelievable changes and I can see for myself people rebuilding and putting their lives back together.  We are well received by Iraqis.  Kids come out of their houses to wave at the convoys.  They clearly are not afraid of us.  It is abundantly evident that this place that has just experienced war and war is a terrible thing to experience.  The bad guys can still murder and do damage, but they are increasingly marginalized.  Iraq will not be as peaceful as Switzerland any time soon, but there is a chance now.  It might be the best chance this place has had since the time of Hamurabi to establish a reasonably stable country where rule of law prevails.

Achieving this, however, required and continues to require strong measures.  Security must come before development and security is established and maintained by force.  In an functioning society, force is less obvious and required less frequently, but even Mayberry has a sheriff and a jail.

Here in Anbar the Marines cooperated with local leaders to establish security.  Insurgents and AQI ruled in most of this place last year.  They could not be persuaded to leave.  They needed to be pushed out.  Not all insurgents were terrorists, and some – most – can be reconciled with civilized societies, as I wrote in a previous post.  Others are just bad.  No earthly redemption is possible.   They need to be removed and the sooner the better because their influence is like a pathogen.  Many people who would be good and honest people are corrupted by contact with them.  You are saving lives by removing them from the population.  I know this is very unPC.  It is also true.  Even in our established societies, we have the Jeffrey Dahlmers and the Ted Bundys.  When the institutions of society break down it gets worse.

What works to establish security is persistence.  The Marines patrol.  Most of the time when they patrol nothing happens.  But it is a numbers game.  Sometimes they find things and their presence disrupts the bad guys and makes them nervous.  In addition, As the Iraqi people see the Marines in routine roles they get accustomed to them and more cooperative.

Most insurgents or terrorists are not fanatics who want to die.  In fact, they are often a little on the lazy side.  Many do it for the money or the excitement.  When success is easy, lots of people want to get involved.  When it gets harder or dangerous, they stay home and find better things to do.   That is why a simple strategy like an earth berm is a useful counter insurgency measure.  Obviously, they could just climb over the berm, but they usually don’t because it exposes them to detection and they are just too lazy to hump their equipment over the top.

The Marines have done their part.   It is now becoming the task of others.  Our PRT is part of that “diplomatic surge”.   We can help but it is ultimately up to the Iraqis to finish this job. Iraq is potentially a prosperous country.   I cannot predict the future, but it seems to me that Iraq can become a reasonably democratic and stable place, if we put in the effort.  This is not a pleasant place, but I would be unhappy if I got pulled out before I had the chance to try to finish my job.

Random Thoughts

Hunks, Monks, Chunks & Drunks

They told us before we came to Iraq that we would end up becoming one of those things above.   The first two are easy here in Al Asad, the third not so much and the last one probably not at all. There are lots of gyms around here and Marines take full advantage of them, so pretty much everybody qualifies as a hunk by civilians standards. They have a 1000lb club (which means lifting more than 1000lbs in a combination of bench press, dead lift and squat).  It is a big club. 

 I don’t know about monks.  Life is austere but the similarity ends there.  Becoming a chunk is possible because of the availability of free, high calorie food, but the Marine culture and the time in the field eating unappetizing MREs militate against it.  Turning into a drunk is practically impossible, since you cannot easily get alcohol and anybody under the influence would stand out.  

It is getting cold around here at night and in the early morning.  Today the prediction is a low of 38.  That is not so cold, but none of the cans have indoor plumbing.  You need to go to a separate building.  Going to and – especially – coming back from the showers will be a chilling experience that many may avoid.   So I expect there may develop a fifth category: skunks.

Iraqi Weather

Speaking of cool, Iraq is not a tropical country.  In summer it is hot (120 degrees is common), but here in the western desert it gets cool during other seasons.  In the last month, the weather has been perfect, around 70 in the afternoon to around 50 at night, but I hear it will be cold soon at night, although usually warming up in the afternoon.  I am ready. I got my coat from Cabalas in the mail a few days ago.

I had an interesting meteorological experience on thanksgiving.  I was on my way to run outside Camp Ripper when I saw a strange dark cloud coming my way.   It was dust.  I decided not to run and instead hunkered down (and got my camera).  The dust did not blow in the wind.  It infiltrated like fog.   It just got darker, colder and harder to breath.  It stung my eyes, but not that much.  The strangest thing was that there were cold raindrops in the dust.  The whole thing had kind of a sinister feeling.  I always assumed that rain would wash the dust out of the air, but evidently not.  Then it passed and it was clear again.

“The fog comes on little cat feet. It sits over the harbor and the city on silent haunches and then moves on.”  What Carl Sandburg said about fog goes for dust, but dust is a meaner, dirtier cat.

Phases of the Moon

I never paid much attention to the phases of the moon but I do now because it matters.  We have no street lights here at Al Asad and it gets darker than an average modern urban American thinks possible.  The walk from the chow hall or the office to my can is very difficult on a moonless night; when the moon is full, as it is today, it is amazingly well lit.

The Old Man and His Place

The picture shows part of a dog pack that patrols the hills near Haditha. There were about a dozen of them, but most went behind the ridge before I got my camera out.  It is not related to my story below.  I needed to put in a picture. I did not have any other use for this one and I wanted to pose a wild dog question that I have been thinking about.  Feral dogs all over the world seem to have cury tails and are often a kind of tan-yellow color.  Wolves and foxes do not have curvy tails, nor do most domestic dogs.  I wonder why it is that feral dogs do.  Anybody know anything about that?

As I looked out the window where the local council was going to meet, I noticed an old guy in a fine suit walking slowly across the bridge.  I thought how he looked out of place.  I figured he was a city council member.  As he approached the guards, I got a better look.  He was a sophisticated looking guy, tall with strong features and very well dressed.  He looked like Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. with a full mustache.  I noticed his shinny black shoes and impeccable dark suit.   It is so dusty here; how did he keep his shoes & clothes so clean.

He was not a city council member and he was not coming for the meeting.   It turns out he was ostensibly the legal owner of the building where we were meeting.  He was trying to file a claim for rent and ultimate restitution, but he had been unable to complete the paperwork w/o a recent picture of his property and he has been unable to get a recent picture because of security.   He waited until he saw the Marine patrol come by and then he walked from his nearby home in hopes that he could get a hearing and a picture.  It worked.  His nice suit and demeanor got in him past and we can get the pictures.

As I looked around the room, it clicked.  This place had been a restaurant, probably a nice one.  Broken bulbs gloomily festooned the now defunct garden that was now used as a big urinal.  The storage room was the kitchen; we were meeting in the main dinning room. The shattered windows overlooked a beautiful bend in the Euphrates and a little park, with a defunct soccer field.   I had seen all these things but not connected them. 

This poor old guy was the once and & perhaps future owner of a fine restaurant and garden on some prime real estate.  He was polite and spoke English.  Fixing the place up looked like a lot of work, but there did not seem to be structural damage.  In fact, I could not figure out how the place got so busted up in the first place.   It was not battle damage, probably vandalism and looting.

It was poignant watching him furtively look around, no doubt recalling happier times, maybe dreading the work he would need to do to get the place repaired, maybe looking forward to it.  He had been a prosperous man and with any luck he would be again. 

With the U.S. Navy in Iraq

There is something joyful and appealing about water, especially when you live in a desert.  I had the great fun on one of  the USN boats that patrols Lake Qadisiya above the Haditha dam.  The Navy patrols the Euphrates River and its reservoirs.  This allows us to catch bad guys trying to cross the river or hide supplies on the islands.  It is kind of funny to find the Navy this far inland and in a desert, but I guess water is water.

Coalition forces from Azerbaijan guard the dam, along with the USMC.  This is appropriate, as I understand Azeris were among those who originally helped build the dam.   It was built about thirty years ago and not maintained very well, so it needs lots of work.  It was built primarily for irrigation, but it also generates power.  I will not vouch for the exact figures and I am not good at technical things, but I understand the power plant currently produces around 440 mw.  This was enough to power most of Anbar and give some to Baghdad.  But now people have bought a lot of electronic devices like computers or durables like washers and refrigerators, so demand for electricity is rising.  The dam could produce 660 mw if all the equipment was updated & working and the reservoir was full.  Watching the water spill over is very pretty, but a lot of energy can go down the river.  One expert says that in an eight hour period he had watched enough water “over the dam” to make the energy equivalent of 33 tanker trucks each holding 5000 gallons of diesel.  I am not sure how he figured it out, but he was an expert.

Water levels are currently low, but that will soon change when winter rain and snow falls upstream and dams in Turkey and Syria release water to send it flowing down the Euphrates.  Low water creates problems for the Navy since weeds and rocks that they could normally sail over are near or above the surface.  Since I was not driving the boat, I was happy with the lower water levels, since they revealed more of the landscape.  What surprises me is how LITTLE grows along the lake shore.  My guess is that the shore of the expanding lake extended into the rocky desert and there is not enough soil to support plants, but I really do not know.  I noticed the same thing along Lake Mead in back of Hoover Dam, which seems to have a similar climate and disposition.  on the other hand, along the river below the dam it is green (as you see in the first picture), which lends credence to the soil theory.

The boats can go pretty fast and ours did, as you might guess from the picture.  I got a good seat near the back, hung on and thoroughly enjoyed the experience of having the water spray past me.  The back of the boat was below the surface, but the wake formed a depression around us.  I didn’t realize how much I missed seeing flowing water.  The best time was when we crossed the wake of the other boat and really bounced.  The water of the Euphrates and the water of the lake is a beautiful aquamarine color and very clear.  You can see fish swimming around below.  The Marines landed on one of the islands, actually more of a peninsula with the low water, took the high ground and checked things out.  Nobody was there.  I stayed on the boat.  Civilians have to be safe.  Actually, I think I just did not get up fast enough, although they clearly didn’t need me, and my boat pulled away to let the other one land troops before I knew it.  After a little while, we picked everybody up and headed back to the shore.

As I looked toward the dam, I noticed something strange in the sky – clouds.  I had not seen significant cloud cover since I arrived in Iraq.  The clouds were back again today in Al Asad.  Those who know tell me that they are the harbingers of winter when we will get some rain and cool weather.  When I said that I looked forward to it, they told me that I would change my mind when I saw and felt the mud.  I figure it is better to be too cold than too hot.  Right now the weather is perfect and I will enjoy it while I can.

Train Depot on the Edge of Forever

Remember in those 1960s TV SciFi shows & how they always featured a post-apocalyptic world that is not really so much destroyed as just devoid of people and busted up?   I found a place where they can do remakes of those classics.

The Al Qaim train depot sits in the middle of a flat desert with tracks stretching to infinity in both directions. The building was new when it was abandoned because of the war; in fact I don’t think it was completed.  Now it is quiet and empty, the vast cavernous inside space ruled by pigeons that spook when you come in, the sound of their wings echoing off empty tile walls.

I kept on waiting for an alien to step out from behind a pillar and cue the Outer Limits control voice:   “There is nothing wrong with your television set.   Do not attempt to adjust the picture.  We are controlling transmission…”  None showed up; all we heard were pigeons and the wind.

The picture is a couple of my colleagues looking around the facility.

BTW – toward evening, I ran a little on the dirt road along the tracks that leads to the depot. The pigeons were sleeping, but I could hear the wild dogs howling in the distance.  It gets dark fast around here.  It was still very light when I started and almost dark 20 minutes later.  I cut my run short because I hoped to avoid getting shot or torn apart by wild dogs.  Neither of these things was a strong possibility, but these are the things you think about when it gets dark in a place like this.   Besides, breaking a leg on the dark rough trail was a danger, so why take chances? This place really has all the needful things for a whole SciFi series.

The depot is structurally intact.  It looks like what damage it suffered is superficial vandalism and neglect. It seems to me, since there is no town nearby that the whole place is vastly over engineered for its probable use, but maybe it was built with future growth in mind. When they built Dulles Airport, it was ridiculed for being in the middle of nowhere; today it is in the middle of a thriving business district.  Some things take time to catch up.  

The railroad was built to serve the local state-owned enterprises. There is a cement factory and a phosphate plant within distant sight of the depot (with a lot of desert in between).  Farther down the tracks was/is a rail repair yard, currently occupied by the Marines.  The rail line was supposed to move heavy materials produced at the plants, such as phosphate and cement to other parts of Iraq and markets in the Gulf and the Med.  The passenger depot would bring in workers from other parts of Iraq and presumably take them back home when they could no longer tolerate life in the desert.  

It was not a bad plan as far as central planning goes.  Locating the phosphate and cement plants near sources of bulky raw materials made sense.  Of course they were managed in the typical socialist way.  That, coupled with local proclivities for flexible accounting methods, meant both facilities soon became massive boondoggles. With decent management and planning, however, this complex probably could make a profit and  contribute something useful to Iraq’s future.  The cement is good quality and there is a large unmet demand.  (Producing cement, BTW, is energy intensive and releases prodigious amounts of CO2.  You literally bake CO2 out of the rocks at high temperatures.  Cement is not an eco-friendly building material, but there is not much wood around here.  Maybe they should import eco-friendly southern pine.)  I have to learn a little more about the phosphate plant before I have an opinion on it.  I hear that it will not make as good an investment, so keep your checkbooks in your pockets for the time being. 

It is a common misconception that every working factory is worth saving.  Often the expense of rehab and various legacy costs associated with previous management give them zero or even negative value in comparison with starting from scratch in a green field (or in this case a brown heap of dirt).  Sometimes the scrap value exceeds the working value, but who knows?  Such decisions are beyond my pay grade.  It might work out just fine.  Maybe the train depot on at the edge of forever will not be forever empty.

Return to Normalcy

Imagine that you lost everything.  Now you are getting it back.  How lucky do you feel?  That is where the people of Western Anbar are today.  After years of suffering, things are finally starting to return to normal and normal looks plenty good when you have not seen it in a while.

The reopening of the port of entry at Husaybah will open western Anbar to trade with neighboring Syria and through that to the Mediterranean. It means that Husaybah and the Al Qaim region is now in the middle of something instead of at the far end.

Goods and people will not move immediately.  The Syrians have been less involved in the opening.  In fact, they were downright petulant, saying that THEY had never closed the POE so they could not reopen it.  But they have begun to clear rubbish, paint buildings on their side, and even touch up the large portrait of Hafez Al Assad, whose friendly face greets visitors entering Syria.  Reopening the POE will profit businesses on both sides of the border and everybody knows that. A Syrian official did wander over from the nether region of the border to congratulate his Iraqi brothers on the reopening.   Whether this was a carefully planned diplomatic move or just some guy wanting to get in on the free food, I do not know.

The refurbished POE will have everything it needs.  There is passport control, a medical unit, police station and a bank.  Outside are docks for the unloading of trucks, as well as a quarantine area and acres of parking. Presumably businesses will pop up nearby to serve the traffic. 

Hundreds of invited guests turned up for the official opening ceremony, including business leaders, officials and local sheiks.  Officials made longish speeches about the work that had gone into the opening as well as the perceived benefits of trade and commerce.  In other words, they made predictable political speeches, normal politics, thanking and acknowledging all those who may be useful in the future.

The opening ceremony itself represented a return to normality.  Although security was very tight, great pains were taken to have security not visibly intrude.  As a result, it looked like an ordinary event in a normal country, with Iraqi flags and Iraqi guests generally dressed in suits or traditional garments, not armor.  The ceremony was followed by the traditional feast.  I understand that 40 sheep contributed the last full measure to the festivities.  And when the feasting was done, the guests went home, without incident.

Below is me at the border.  Over my shoulder is Syria.  Still some work needs to be done on the connection, but normality is on the way.

Our ePRT will be facilitating the flow of commerce at the POE, most immediately with a QRF supported grant for signage to direct traffic.  In the longer term, ePRT personnel are helping with planning things such as traffic flow and placement of commercial areas.

A lot of planning went into making this spontaneous event possible.  I like to remember this from the Book of the Tao:

The best rulers are scarcely known;
The next best are loved and praised;
The next are feared;
The next despised:
They have no faith in their people,
And their people become unfaithful.

When the best rulers achieve their purpose
The people say they did it themselves.

I would presume to add one more line: AND they are right, IF planners get initial conditions right and understand when to get out of the way.

Celebratory Fire…Maybe the Odd Angry Shot

Kids come out and wave as we drive by.  When I got out and walked toward them, they started to run off.  When I sat down on the curb they came back.  We are evidently a curiosity. 

The day started out auspiciously enough.  We scheduled a full slate of appointments.  We were supposed to meet with the regional agricultural representative, visit the local bank, talk to the microfinance people and tour some local farms.  Beyond all that, we planned to go on a foot patrol through the marketplace.  I had grand hopes to spend my first Iraqi dinar at an actual Iraqi market, even if it was only to buy a can of Coke and some kabobs.

We DID mange to meet the ag official.   I did not have much business with him and only went through the greeting rituals, but my team members spent a couple of very useful hours looking over plans and proposals.  Our first bad news came when we learned we would not be able to visit the market.   An IED had gone off there a couple days before.  The Iraqi police said that it was a local matter, more a case of criminal intimidation than terrorism, but since the site was where we were going, the Marines thought it was not worth the risk. 

Instead, we went straight to the bank to meet the microfinance guys, but there was a flawed communication.  The people we were supposed to meet had gone.  The guard called them and they said they would be right back.  We were having a good into talk with the administrative manager.  He has survived some rough times.  AQI had murdered his father and his ten year old brother.  His family had to hide out in the desert for six months until AQI cleared out.  But now times were better. 

We heard shots, quite a few.  It was “celebratory fire”.  Evidently some detainees were released and their joyful relatives were celebrating the way they do around here: shooting guns into the air.  These kinds of celebrations are dangerous for two reasons.  First they sometimes turn nasty.  Maybe for some of the former inmates, the joy of getting out does not completely balance the annoyance of being put in.  Second and probably more important is that other rule of law — gravity.   What goes up must come down.  Falling bullets hurt and kill people.  They tend to tumble a little, but they come down with force similar to what they went up with.  Not a good thing to get caught in that rain.  The Marines told us that it would be very embarrassing if we got shot while under their care.   They ushered us out quickly and we missed the rest of our appointments.It is surreal.   Our hosts at the bank were not armored or protected and they were also not particularly concerned.  They were just bringing out cakes and little cans of Pepsi (very cute little cans) when we made our excuses.  Those kids you saw in my picture just kept on playing.  I understand the need for safety in general.  I also understand that given the circumstances of the celebrations our presence might actually cause a celebratory mob to turn unpleasant creating danger for ourselves and those people around us.  I just hope there is less such joyful noise so that we can get more work done.